Matthew 10:23 – “‘But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.”
There’s a lot in this verse. Let’s unpack it for a minute.
Jesus’ group of twelve hand-picked disciples will soon embark on a short mission trip to preach and do miracles in His name in Israel (Matthew 10:5–8). Much later, after His death, resurrection, and return to heaven, they will represent Him far and wide for the rest of their lives. That long-term mission seems to be what He is describing in this section. They can expect to be arrested, persecuted, and hated because of their association with Him (Matthew 10:17–22).
A common misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching on violence and persecution is that believers are to passively and meekly do nothing while they are being assaulted or murdered. While revenge and violence are not, at all, part of a biblical response (Romans 12:19; John 18:36), that does not mean believers cannot seek to avoid harm when possible. Here, for instance, Jesus tells His apostles to flee persecution in one town by moving to another town. In this way, the message of the good news about faith in Jesus will spread throughout the towns of Israel.
Christ also adds a comment which is controversial, and difficult to understand that these men will not have made it through “all of the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Scholars are divided about exactly what Jesus means in this remark.
Some understand that Jesus has returned to talking about the more immediate mission of the Twelve to the towns of Israel while He is still alive. In that case, He is saying that He, as the “Son of Man,” will come to them before they finish preaching and healing in all the towns of Israel. The problem with that idea is that we don’t know of any persecution of the apostles before Jesus’ death.
Other scholars believe Jesus was talking about the coming of the Son of Man—meaning Himself—in judgment against Israel, and that this was fulfilled in AD 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. In that case, Jesus pictures these apostles experiencing persecution until that moment, as they carried the gospel from town to town in Israel.
Another view is that Jesus is describing His own return to earth to establish His physical kingdom, what is often described as the Second Coming or the day of the Lord. The question with this view is why Jesus seems to say that it will happen before the apostles can finish taking the gospel to each town in Israel when, in fact, it has still not taken place long after the apostles have died.
Other views and variations on those views exist, as well. None of them is held too strongly by a majority of scholars. All easily agree, however, that Jesus is clearly communicating that the persecution of His followers will serve the purpose of moving them from place to place, spreading the preaching of the gospel far and wide. This is exactly what happened during the century following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return to the Father.